Ruslan Trad, journalist
In mid-April 2018, online groups with hundreds of supporters shared new statements from the leadership of the Islamic State (ISIS). The messages instructed sympathizers and fighters to expect news very soon and to prepare for new operations. Shortly afterward, an audio recording by the ISIS spokesman calling for regrouping was also published.
These online groups are still active and publish dozens of messages every day. New statements come as a surprise to the general public, but not to analysts who closely monitor the organization’s development. Despite the optimistic statements by politicians both in Russia and the US that ISIS has been destroyed, experts are aware that this is far from the truth. The security core, the propaganda apparatus, the “sleeper cells”, and the fighters — though reduced in number — are still active despite the military campaigns carried out by the international coalition over the past years. ISIS has shown no intention of hiding in the sands of Syria and Iraq. Since mid-June, ISIS has been running a video series entitled, “The Best Outcome is for the Pious”, which has featured groups jihadists re-pledging their allegiance to ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So far, there have been nine videos; some are from well-established wilayahs or “provinces” like Libya and the Russian Caucasus, and some are from places ISIS has never-before claimed to have a presence like Azerbaijan. The most recent video came from Turkey, where an ISIS wilayah was wordlessly announced by Al-Baghdadi when he re-appeared on 29 April. While this might be dismissed as propaganda—the groups of jihadists seen in each video are small—the signs of ISIS’s strengthening position are visible in several countries. The group is clearly preparing for new attacks both in and beyond the Middle East.
The Egyptian branch of ISIS, Wilayat Sinai or Sinai Province, often abbreviated to ISIS-SP, regularly attacks the security forces. In just the month of April, there were at least five assaults, ending with murdered soldiers or seized supplies. In the first week of June, ISIS committed a deadly attack, killing eight police officers on a checkpoint. Then there were brief clashes in the town of Al-Arish, located in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Months after the loss of territories in Syria and Iraq, ISIS-SP continues to be one of the most active branches of the group. Taking advantage of the government’s lack of capacity and cruelty in the Sinai Peninsula, the jihadists have established a secure base that is expanding its reach. ISIS-SP activity already exists in at least four cities on the peninsula.
For their part, the Egyptian authorities are helping the group with its inadequate responses. Because of the military campaign launched by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi leads in Sinai, over 420 000 people do not have direct access to essential services and supplies such as medicines and food. In this way, the local peoples who already have a history of rebellions against the central authorities, refuse to cooperate with the security services and the ISIS fighters manage to escape after each attack.
It is not only in Egypt that there is such an intensified activity of ISIS. In Afghanistan and the Sahel, there are increasing signals that the group is building up local bases.
In Kabul, several attacks last spring were a reminder that ISIS’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) intends to stay permanently in Afghanistan. Dozens of victims and security breakdowns show how difficult it is for the central government to cope with the challenges that include fighting with Taliban on several fronts. Since its arrival in the country, ISIS has benefited handsomely from the problems in Afghanistan — the ethnic and sectarian divisions, government corruption, and so on — even managing to peel away a few hundred Taliban fighters. Thus, in Nangarhar Province and northern Afghanistan, ISIS-K already has at least two bases that it can and does use for activities within Afghanistan, and perhaps soon to plan actions outside the country.
In the desert area of Sahel, ISIS has encountered resistance from its main ideological competitor, Al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, ISIS managed to carry out operations against Algerian, Malian, and French forces, and continues to gain ground. Two years ago, ISIS was involved in an attack against a team of American Green Berets in Niger, killing four of them, and igniting a heated debate in the U.S. about why there are American forces in the area at all, and why they were not prepared for, and defended against, such attacks.
At the beginning of June this year, ISIS claimed its first presence in Mozambique. This is another episode in the development of ISIS in Africa. Western and central regions of the continent are becoming increasingly visible both from the group’s propaganda and its operations. Now, ISIS expands its reach to East Africa. Copying the model of his ideological opponent, Al-Qaeda, ISIS infiltrates local conditions, feeds on dissatisfaction, and hijacks local anti-government and rebel movements. This tactic proved to be particularly successful in West Africa and Nigeria, where Lake Chad became the eye of the storm. ISIS became so powerful in this area, the Nigerian army was forced to retreat in parts.
In Tunisia, there has also been a growth in the presence of ISIS, and clashes with the security forces have become more common over the past two years. The twin ISIS suicide bombing in Tunis at the end of June is a testament to ISIS’s increased capacity in the country.
ISIS is Still Strong in Iraq and Syria
Despite the heavy military campaigns of the international coalition in Mosul and Raqqa, the jihadists managed to retain their core and even significant parts of their fighting force. It is still unclear what happened to a few thousand fighters who pulled out of Mosul and Raqqa: according to information from experts and intelligence services, part of them mingled with the local population, others retired and regrouped in other areas, and the third groups have tried to return to their native countries.
For all the talk about the danger of foreign fighters returning home, insufficient attention has been given to the fact that ISIS continues to have a strategic presence in Syria, notably in the Badiya, the deserts of the south-east. In this area, around Al-Tanf and Suwayda, ISIS has been able to execute horrific attacks, as well as continuing harassing operations against the forces occupying these zones.
Today, through its local supporters, ISIS has established a network of influence over farmlands and trade routes, and is able to spread fear among several hundred thousand people. In the past, ISIS gained influence because of rebel fragmentation. Though Bashar al-Assad’s regime now controls most of these areas, that is unlikely to help since the dictator is an unreliable, inconsistent, and incompetent anti-terrorism actor.=
Assad’s regime allowed ISIS to grow in the east to build its caliphate, and during rebel efforts to defeat the jihadists would launch airstrikes against the rebels. And when Assad finally did move against ISIS in the southern Damascus suburbs, it lost control of Qadam neighborhood and then let most of the jihadists go. We need to pay attention to these events and dynamics because they underline how ISIS became so strong in Syria and why it will remain so.
The outlook is hardly better in eastern Syria where the US partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), holds ground. After the city of Raqqa was captured, the inertia of the Kurdish and US forces set in, and after Ankara’s intervention in Afrin, even more so. Thus, ISIS retained its control over villages around the Euphrates River and along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Since last mid-April, jihadists have made daily attacks on Albu Kamal, Mayadin, and Deir Ezzor. Data from the Rojava Information Center recorded that in May 2019 alone, in the areas held by the SDF, 78 people were killed, at a minimum, as a result of the activities of 139 ISIS sleeper cell attacks.
Contrary to the statements of the Iraqi authorities that the jihadists are being destroyed, ISIS is constantly attacking around the country. Indeed, the Baghdad government’s military has reported that over 200 soldiers died in the first five months of 2018, not counting police casualties. This is a very big loss, given that it officially has no battles with ISIS. The situation has not improved since.
Between 5 May and 3 June 2019, the U.S-led Combined Joint Taskforce’s Operation Inherent Resolve conducted eleven strikes consisting of 34 engagements against ISIS targets in Iraq. The Iraqi Civil Defense Directorate affirmed shortly after this that more than 6,100 acres of agricultural crops were incinerated in less than two weeks in 136 separate incidents. ISIS has claimed responsibility for numerous blazes in recent weeks, justifying their targeting of wheat crops as retaliation against those refusing to pay the taxes.
The group began again with the kidnappings of political activists and chiefs of local police posts, causing fear among ordinary people, as was the case in 2008–2009, the period preceding the rise of ISIS. Last year the Iraqi forces even carried out massive air strikes along the border with Syria, as information came out that ISIS smuggled dozens of fighters.
The Sleeper Cells Wake Up?
Given that ISIS retains bases from which it can freely operate, the chances that it is preparing attacks — in Europe, the US, and Russia — are rather high, and likely to intensify.
The recent instructions ISIS has been giving to its sympathizers via its encrypted propaganda channels show that the group has moved beyond the “sleeper cells” stage to active operational teams that are preparing new attacks outside the Middle East, alongside its insurgent campaign at “the centre” in Syria and Iraq.
Among the areas that have lost international attention for several reasons is Southeastern Europe. The Balkans continue to be a source of instability for both local communities and their neighboring regions. Hundreds of fighters left the region for Syria and Iraq to join both ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Some of them are starting to return, posing a direct threat to security, while programs for deradicalization often only exist only on paper. Some of the Balkan fighters in ISIS and Al-Qaeda are military leaders and active fighters who have become a model for their supporters. Yet every attempt to talk more about the Balkans’ problems today is missed, if not actively spurned, by experts and officials alike.
The latest news from Bulgaria shows that even a country that has no data records on the activity of its citizens in the ranks of ISIS and Al-Qaeda is not immune from its citizens falling under the influence of ISIS’s radical ideology. A 16-years old student from the city of Plovdiv was arrested in early June on suspicion of having prepared a bomb after he was guided online by an ISIS recruiter. Neither the authorities nor the media in the country proved to be prepared for such cases because the subject has been neglected.
All the signs — from Southeast Asia across the Middle East and Africa to Europe — show that ISIS is very active. And the rise of the far-right on the other hand is feeding into a cycle of radicalism and violence that will benefit ISIS. We must free ourselves from the perception of our imaginary successes — like the media mantra of “the defeated Islamic State” — and start working cooly and gradually to prevent this type of ideology from reaching its goals.
*European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in the article below represent the author alone.